Panel discusses ‘Parks as Contested Spaces’ at Arts Incubator

As panelist Meida McNeal, Arts and Culture Manager with the Chicago Park District, and moderators Nadia Sulayman, Associate Director of Community Arts and Programs with the Arts Incubator, and Isis Ferguson, Associate Director of City and Community Strategy with the Arts Incubator, listen, panelist Anton Seals Jr., Lead Steward for Grow Greater Englewood, asks the rhetorical question “Who is the gentry?” when discussing South Side gentrification during a Parks as Contested Spaces event at the Arts Incubator, 301 E. Garfield Blvd., last Wednesday. – Marc Monaghan

Staff Writer

Meida McNeal, of the Chicago Parks District and Anton Seals, Jr., of Grow Greater Englewood, a green business-oriented social enterprise nonprofit, discussed the sensitive nature of public park ownership and use by black Chicagoans, including recent the proposal to build the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in Jackson Park. The event took place last Wednesday at the Arts Incubator in Washington Park, 301 E. Garfield Blvd.

McNeal, the District’s Arts and Culture Manager, detailed the history of racial discord in Chicago parks, from the 1919 race riots that began with an altercation at the city’s unofficially segregated beaches to unrest in the 1960s and ‘70s around Marquette Park. She said that a lot of North Side communities feel “empowered to ask for what they want from parks and a right to get those things,” while there is still work to be done in South and West Side communities to foster the same sense of ownership. She spoke of parks as “civic laboratories,” encouraging citizens to share space, live together and work through contention.

“The larger question about surveillance and around the attachment to ownership in the community around public space, I think, is something that’s still ongoing,” said Seals, Grow Greater Englewood’s Lead Steward. A South Shore native, he discussed the evolution of what would become the South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Dr., which had previously been a segregated private country club. “Growing up, we had no clue that people were fighting for this space,” he said. Given the neighborhood’s racial transformation, he was never afraid of going places in the neighborhood because of white people, though gangs were an issue in certain areas.

Seals also discussed African people’s historical connection to land stewardship, including the agricultural slave economy that brought them to the New World. “There’s a barrier, even if it’s not spoken, around access to land,” he said. In Englewood, he said, the question is not about parkland but abandoned railroad tracks and vacant lots. “The question is,” he asked, “who claims this space again, and what does it mean for the public?”

Seals called the summertime combination of the lakefront, loud music and smoke “a ritual that is distinctly black Chicago” that heralds the beginning of summer, and that parks could respond to communities’ unique cultural needs by enabling people “to have and create space where [they] can tap into joy and imagination,” calling such work his purpose.

“We are always trying to build structures that will enable people to come to the table,” said McNeal about her office, adding that parameters needed to be set to guide the discourse towards consensus about which actions would result in the most good for the broadest array of people.

During a question-and-answer forum following the discussion, the Herald asked the panel whether the OPC can function as a “black space.” “The answer is no,” said Seals, who is associated with the Obama Library South Side Community Benefits Agreement Coalition. He said the hope for the Center was about how it could be a “catalyst” for surrounding neighborhoods and that people “want a hero,” but that it was failing to deliver. “The way things happen in Chicago is like, ‘Oh yeah, that did happen. Oops.’ It’s too late, and things become privatized.” he said.

Seals also expressed concern about housing and the OPC, that affordable housing was contingent on market-rate housing selling and that public housing was largely a thing of the past. He said the OPC would not be a black space “in a way black Chicagoans would think of it as a black space” and that there had never been a resolution about the exodus of white South Siders in the mid-20th century, describing the negative connotations that neighborhoods have in the popular imagination against the “joy and ownership” that black Chicagoans felt for them after white flight.